Spanish PM suffers setback in local election as hand-picked candidate loses

By Daniel Woolls, AP
Sunday, October 3, 2010

Local election setback for Spain PM

MADRID — Spain’s beleaguered prime minister suffered an embarrassing setback in a local election race Sunday, and a poll showed his party trailing ever further behind the opposition conservatives at the national level.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s hand-picked candidate to be the Socialist contender in next year’s race for the presidency of the Madrid regional government lost a primary election to a rebel candidate that Zapatero had specifically asked not to run.

The party says the number of dues-paying party members eligible to vote was just 18,000 and the margin of victory was a close 541 votes.

Zapatero’s candidate Trinidad Jimenez, the popular and nationally prominent health minister, was supported enthusiastically by Zapatero and the big guns of his government.

Still, she lost to Tomas Gomez, the much lesser known president of the regional branch of Zapatero’s Socialist party.

Primaries are rare in Spanish elections, and this one was forced several months ago when Zapatero picked Jimenez to run in the regional election next year and Gomez refused to drop out despite a request from his political boss Zapatero.

Gomez won even though internal party polls had said that Jimenez had a better chance of beating the incumbent Madrid president, the deeply entrenched conservative Esperanza Aguirre, seen as very hard to unseat.

Sunday’s result suggests that with all Zapatero’s problems — a 20 percent jobless rate and listless economy, unions angry over labor market reforms and other austerity measures, and markets wary of Spanish government finances — the premier has trouble even imposing his authority over a handful of members of his Socialist party living in the same city as him.

A survey published Sunday in El Pais doled out more bad news: The opposition Popular Party would win by 14.5 percentage points over the Socialists if elections were held now. The next general election is currently scheduled for 2012.

The regional elections next year are nationwide, however, and seen as a litmus test for what might happen in 2012. Zapatero has not yet confirmed if he will seek a third term then. He was first elected in 2004.

The new cushion for the conservatives has grown by 5.6 percentage points in just a month in the Metroscopia poll carried out for the nation’s top selling paper, which tends to be pro-Zapatero.

The survey was conducted last Thursday, a day after a general strike held against the government’s austerity plans. The margin of error was 4.5 points.

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